What It's Like To Be A Guest
At A State Dinner
December 2009

by Dirck Halstead

On my Facebook I have been writing about the "crashing" of the recent White House state dinner for the Indian prime minister. A few people have asked me what it is like to attend one of these events as a guest.

Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton
President Barack Obama meets White House party crashers Michaele and Tareq Salahi during a state dinner for the Indian prime minister, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2009.
As I recall, I was invited to at least two of these dinners. Once during the Ford administration, and again during the H.W. Bush administration. On both of those occasions, it was because I had a personal relationship with the president. It is not uncommon for the White House to invite some regulars from the White House press, such as Helen Thomas, or Bill Plante of CBS, as a courtesy.

All of these dinners are covered by press pools. They are escorted to the guest arrival line, and then invited in for the toasts, and finally for the entertainment. The press must wear black-tie attire and gowns, even though they are only there briefly.

Guests, on the other hand, get the full treatment. They show up at the southeast gate of the mansion starting about 6:30 p.m. A state dinner usually has around 300 guests. They are all in formal clothing, unless the visiting head of state decides on business attire, which happens occasionally. If they have remembered to bring their invitations, they are presented to both a White House uniformed guard, and a Secret Service agent checking lists. In the past, there was also a representative from the White House Social Office present to double-check the names on the list. At this bash, Obama's first state dinner, there apparently was no one from the Social Office there to check guests from the invitation list.

Dirck Halstead with President Bill Clinton during receiving line at the White House.
Unlike entering the White House for daily events, which is cleared through the northwest gate, and requires either a "hard pass" issued by the White House for staff and press or specific clearance through the Press Office to the gate, the requirements are generally relaxed for state dinners. Few of the guests are regulars to the White House, and a driver's license is sufficient for entrance, provided your name is on the list. However, in my experience the lists are always wrong. Somebody on the staff has invariably gotten a name or Social Security number wrong, or more often, somebody in the employ of the guest got it all wrong. Since by definition these are important people, the gatekeepers try to avoid hassles.

These dinners are huge productions by the White House, which require pulling out all the stops. The Marine Band Quintet plays jazz in the State Hall as guests arrive. The full Marine Band plays in the East Room for the entertainment, accompanying the guest entertainer, and also for dancing. The dinner itself is normally held in the State Dining Room, although in the case of the Indian prime minister, because of the large number of guests, it was held under a tent on the South Lawn.

Upon entering the State Room floor, guests are given wine or anything else they want. The next event is the presidential reception line. All guests are supposed to queue up to meet the president, one by one. As they approach the president, an aide hands each guest or couple a card on which they print their names. By the time they get to the president, they are announced. A very few remarks to the president or first lady are appropriate. The guests then make their way to the dinner tables, where a name card and place setting awaits them. The meals are excellent, in several courses, often in some way reminiscent of the guest's food preferences. American wines are served. Champagne is served for the formal toasts, along with the most wonderful desserts the pastry chef can concoct.

Following toasts, the official party walks into the East Room, where chairs have been set up for a concert and, occasionally, dancing. The first state dinner I covered was hosted by the Kennedy White House and Pablo Casals was the featured performer. Following the entertainment, the Marine Band may play for dancing until the president and first lady retire for the evening at about 10:30 p.m.

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India walk down the Cross Hall as the official State Arrival ceremony begins in the East Room of the White House, Nov. 24, 2009.
So how did Michaele and Tareq Salahi manage to penetrate the White House, waltz past the security guard and the Secret Service? It was probably not too difficult. Today, guests can bring their cars onto the White House circle for parking, then leave them to assemble around the southeast gate. By the time they have done this, they have formed a crowd of nearly 300, all of them looking like Steven Spielberg (who was there) or a captain of industry, or a movie star. Half of them lost their invitations, so their driver's license was the only ticket in – combined with a guest list that is always incomplete. Once waved through all they have to do is go through the magnetometer, then they are directed to the State Floor … and of course, the reception line with the president, the picture of which is taken by the official White House photographer.

Having gotten this far, my guess (since I have never heard anything to the contrary in the reporting), is that the Salahis probably decided to quit while they were ahead and beat a retreat the way they came. If they had gotten into the tent, things would have quickly become more problematic, because they would have been faced with White House Social Office people with very specific table assignments for each of the legitimate guests.

It's been reported that Mr. and Mrs. Salahi were trying for a reality TV show gig. And they may get their wish, though it might not be the reality show they bargained for.

© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist

Dirck Halstead was Time magazine's Senior White House Photographer for 29 years. He now is the Publisher and Editor of The Digital Journalist, the monthly online magazine for visual journalism, and a Senior Fellow at the Center For American History at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book, MOMENTS IN TIME, published by Harry N. Abrams, is in bookstores, and available from Amazon.com.

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